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Review: Curio

2:00 PM on 01.23.2012 // Tony Ponce

Ladies and gentlemen, I got an iPhone this Christmas! I am no longer living in the 20th century!

I've been checking out apps I've had my eye on as well as little surprises that have been suggested to me. So far, I've been enjoying the pick-up-and-play nature of mobile games, quickly restocking my stores in Tiny Tower while waiting at red lights, and whatnot. The next logical step was to review an iOS game.

I offered to give Curio a spin because it seemed like a deliciously unsettling auto-scrolling runner with a twisted art style. It turned out to be exactly that... in addition to being complete horsesh*t.

Curio (iPhone, iPad -- universal app)
Developer: BrainBlast Games
Publisher: BrainBlast Games
Released: December 20, 2011
MSRP: $0.99

The first thing you'll notice about Curio is the art. Based on the works of JJ Horner, the style is depressing and macabre; in conjunction with the audio, punctuated as it is by the frantic breathing of your protagonist Ron and the sorrowful wails of the asylum's residents, the world of Curio will both fascinate you and make you uncomfortable. Jonathan Holmes may shamefully bow his head at yet another misrepresentation of a psychiatric hospital in fiction, but the ugliness has a certain morbid appeal to it.

And that's about as far as I can go with the compliments.

Curio looks good in stills, but once in motion, it turns into a mess of shit. Literally, the moment you start running, the background becomes one huge blur. You can no longer distinguish between random bits of furniture and obstacles you have to dodge by tapping the screen, and it gets exponentially worse as you build momentum.

Since you can barely make out the obstacles, you might get the idea to use audio cues. Then you encounter dudes who just stand there and make no sound whatsoever. Since these assholes blend in the background just like everything else, it's nearly impossible to avoid them. So that idea's out the window.

Throughout your run, a screw which represents your sanity slowly loosens, and colliding with obstacles loosens it a greater amount. You can collect pills along your path to regain some sanity, but once the screw is completely undone, you enter an "insanity mode" where the visuals take on an 8-bit style. You return to reality by touching a star, but should you fall into a pit during IM, a Mega Man death chime plays and your game ends.

I'm guessing the developer thought the 8-bit look would be a nifty treat, but it's nothing more than a novelty that quickly overstays its welcome. In last week's Podtoid, Jim and the others brought up the "retro fad" and how certain games bait you with nostalgia without offering any additional substance. That's precisely the case with Curio, where the gameplay remains identical to that of the main levels save for the addition of a repetitive chiptune track and a screen that flips constantly.

It doesn't make a difference how well you avoid obstacles and maintain your sanity, because there's this "screamer" whose yell will immediately send you into IM. He is by far the most vile character in the game; dodging him requires catching his amorphous outline the millisecond it appears at the edge of the screen. It's as though he was created for the sole purpose of making sure you never miss the "oh so cool" 8-bit nightmare, and for that, I hate him with every fiber of my being.

The only reason you would want to continue playing is to unlock audio chapters that tell the story of how Ron's parents went missing in the rainforests of Puerto Rico. Narrated by the hypnotic voice of Robert Forster, who played the bondsman Max Cherry in Jackie Brown, these segments are easily the best part of Curio. How they tie into Ron's current mental state, I'll never know. According to the leaderboard, only one person aside from the developer has even reached the final level, so I guess nobody else will. And really, unlockables in a videogame should be a bonus for a job well down, not the sole aim.

The most disappointing thing about Curio is that its shortcomings could easily have been remedied. Perhaps the unique art style would have to be altered to allow for better visibility, but I consider that a small sacrifice when the game suffers so much because of it. As for the "insanity mode," I might not have felt so strongly towards it had not clearly been made to pander to nostalgia junkies who take anything thrown their way as long as it's "retro."

Curio might be a half decent game underneath all the window dressings, but those dressings are precisely what make it such a frustration to play. When you can't even see what you're doing the majority of the time, no one is going to enjoy whatever style or atmosphere it's hoping to convey.



Curio - Reviewed by Tony Ponce
Insulting - I feel mocked by this game. It's engaging for just long enough to pull the rug out from under me and scream in my ear, "surprise! I suck!"

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Tony Ponce, Contributor
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